Femke becomes Funke: Not a common cold

by Femke van Zeijl

I long for the moment when I have finally toughened up and gotten used to pure water, malaria and eating fresh salads outdoors (another oyinbo no no).

‘Salsa tonight?’ The voice on the other end of the line made it sound more like a statement than a question. Which is understandable: since I moved to Lagos last year I have never passed over an opportunity for dancing salsa. It is my way of unwinding after a day of urban excitement, a healthy workout at that. This time though I had to decline the invitation, because I had just returned from hospital after my first malaria. I explained this to my salsa acquaintance, a sweet guy who dresses like a biker, who jokingly replied he would not forgive me if I did not show up that evening. I insisted I was too ill to walk, let alone dance, but I could tell that he did not understand. I imagined him wondering what the big deal was about malaria that I could not come dancing a couple of days later.

That same evening I got a call from my mother in The Netherlands. I had not informed her I had been taken ill, knowing fully well what her reaction would be. I was planning to tell her after I had recovered. But my mum discovered Twitter (the full consequences of which I still have to get to terms with) and had just read one of my malaria tweets. ‘Lieverd, are you ill?’ she inquired. She sounded short of breath, her voice higher-pitched than usual. ‘Mama, I am fine. Don’t worry. Malaria here is regarded as nothing more than a common cold.’

I was not just downplaying my illness to alleviate her anxiety, but also mirroring a common Nigerian reaction to malaria: most people simply do not see it as a very big deal. They have grown up with the illness that in the west sends shivers down people’s spines. In the Netherlands, when they hear you are suffering from malaria, people fear for your life. In Nigeria, when it considers a healthy grown up, they shrug. You are supposed to self medicate, stay in bed maybe for a day or two or show up at the office feeling miserable, and then life continues.

The mosquito net over the queen sized bed in my doll’s house has always been a subject of mockery to my Nigerian friends. Mosquito nets are for babies, they reckon, pleasantly ridiculing my netted bed in the same way they shake their heads when I refuse to drink pure water, fearing my used to nothing stomach will not be able to handle the content of the dodgy little bags. Sometimes my weak constitution irritates me. I long for the moment when I have finally toughened up and gotten used to pure water, malaria and eating fresh salads outdoors (another oyinbo no no). I even tried looking at my first acquaintance with malaria in my life as a Lagos initiation rite, understating the illness as a common cold.

Until I read up on the facts. Truth of the matter is: malaria is not in any way innocent. Malaria is responsible for one out of ten cases of maternal mortality in Nigeria, one out of four of infant mortality and for one third of the deaths of children under the age of five. More people in this country die of malaria than of HIV/AIDS (Nigeria Malaria Fact Sheet). And the disastrous economic, social and health related effects of almost an entire population regularly coming down with the disease, are hardly measurable.

The malaria parasite needs two hosts in order to survive: mosquitoes and humans. We play as much a part in the spreading of the disease as those annoying insects (the female ones) do. Simply said: if mosquitoes were to be extinguished, malaria would die along with them. But the same goes for humans.

Now I would not go as far as to advocate the latter, which seems a bit beside the point. But realising my own role in the malaria drama, I do not feel ashamed anymore when I hide under my much ridiculed adult mosquito net at night. I will probably not die of malaria, because I am strong enough and I have access to medication. But the children and pregnant women around me might not be so lucky.


Talk to Femke on Twitter @femkevanzeijl



Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

One comment

  1. Amen! May you not die of malaria in Nigeria (as well as elsewhere). Lovely piece here. Do take!

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